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Thursday, February 22, 2024

The vast gulf between Rajapaksa rhetoric and existential reality of Rajapaksa rule

Tisaranee Gunasekara
“For quite long periods, at any rate, people can remain undisturbed by obvious lies, either because they simply forget what is said from day to day or because they are under such a constant propaganda bombardment that they become anaesthetized to the whole business”. – George Orwell (Tribune – 2.6.1944)

The Rajapaksas have quite a few attributes in common with Vellupillai Pirapaharan. A pronounced tendency towards deceitfulness is one such characteristic. Lying is a habit, but the Ruling Family is more likely to lie to fellow Sri Lankans than to foreigners.

According to a Wikileaks cable, Basil Rajapaksa admitted, in a conversation with the then American Ambassador, that the STF was responsible for the January 2006 murder of five Tamil students in Trincomalee.

“The Tamil youths – Shanmugarajah Gajendran, Lohitharaja Rohan, Thangathurai Sivanantha, Yogarajah Hemachandran and Manoharan Rajihar – all of them born in 1985 – were bona-fide students either in university or on the threshold of higher studies. They had no political connections and used to meet in the evenings on the sea front where the Gandhi statue used to stand….” (UTHR-J – Special Report No. 20 – 2.4.2006).

The Rajapaksas have always denied any knowledge or responsibility for this most dastardly crime. The truth was far otherwise, as Basil Rajapaksa himself admits: “We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence show that they did not. They must have separate guns when they want to kill someone”, Basil Rajapaksa informed the US envoy (quoted in Colombo Telegraph).

Human rights organisations with impeccable anti-Tiger credentials, such as the UTHR-J, maintained all along that Lankan forces were responsible for the Trinco-killing. The UTHR-J, basing itself on eye witness account, even published a reconstruction of the crime: “A trishaw came along Dockyard Road about 6.00 PM from which a grenade was thrown at the students, two of whom received minor injuries and fell on the ground. Soon afterwards the area was surrounded by the Navy and the STF unit arrived and the students were not allowed to leave. First they were loaded into the police truck in which the STF arrived. Then they were assaulted, thrown down, made to kneel and shot, two of them through the ear.

After a delay, apparently to ensure that the injured died, the victims were taken to the hospital. Immediately the cover up went into full swing, with security spokesmen and the army website, which had been a fairly credible source of violations by the LTTE, claiming that the students were killed by the explosion of a bomb in their possession…. Their crucial miscalculation was the courage of the Sinhalese DMO, Dr. Gamini Gunatunga, who did the post mortem examinations and testified that the 5 students named above died of gun shot wounds (UTHR Report – 2.4.2006).

All along, the Rajapaksas maintained that such accusations were nothing but Tiger propaganda. The Wikileaks cable reveals that these denials were blatant lies, and that they knew all along that the Forces under their command were responsible for this dastardly deed.

Other Wikileaks cables contain several similar instances. During the above mentioned conversation, Basil Rajapaksa also admitted that the Navy “has been credibly implicated in harassment and human rights violations” (Colombo Telegraph). Reporting on an October 2006 conversation with Basil Rajapaksa, the then US Ambassador wrote “‘We have had trouble with other Tamil groups,’ Rajapaksa explained, naming Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Karuna Faction who ‘might have weapons.’ Rajapaksa said that the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) has requested Devananda and the Tamil Mukkal Vidutalai Pulikal (TMVP… a.k.a. the Karuna faction) to control their members and in the case of the TMVP to ‘go back to Batticaloa.’ ‘We have clearly instructed Douglas and Karuna that they are personally responsible for the actions of their members.’ He added that it ‘looked like’ EPDP cadres, along with the SLN, had perpetrated the mid-August burning of the pro-LTTE Uthayan newspaper office in Jaffna” (ibid).

With hindsight it is obvious that Basil Rajapaksa told the US envoy a combination of truths and lies. It is impossible to believe that the STF got away with the Trinco murder or the Navy got away with harassing civilians or the EPDP got away with burning the Uthuyan newspaper office, without the knowledge and the concurrence of the Rajapaksa Siblings – especially President Mahinda and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya.

It is impossible to believe that the EPDP and the TMVP, totally dependent on the regime for their very survival, would have dared to disobey any Rajapaksa dictat. Basil Rajapaksas’ purpose in ‘baring all’ to the US Ambassador seems to identical to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s purpose in promising 13+ to the Indian Foreign Minister last month – to prop up the illusion that Rajapaksas are centrists engaged in a difficult balancing act, pressurised by extremists on every side.

The truth is far otherwise. The Rajapaksas are the true extremists, the ones who want to stay in power at whatever the cost. This reality cannot be hidden beyond the point. So, the Americans would have realised – somewhere along the way – that Basil Rajapaksa did not tell them the whole truth. The Indians will realise ere long (if they have not done so already) that the Rajapaksa promises of devolution are totally false. The Lankan people too are beginning to comprehend the vast gulf between the Rajapaksa rhetoric and the really existing reality of Rajapaksa rule.

This is best evidenced by the steady erosion of public trust in those institutions which form the basic pillars of every civilised society, from the police to the judiciary, from the education and health authorities to the Central Bank.

The CID is reported to have informed the court that a witness has identified the police-bodyguard of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra as the man who fired the first shot in the Kolonnawa mini-war. But, the witness “had by an affidavit stated that he did not make any such statement to the CID” (Daily Mirror – 31.1.2012). Last week, a motorist in Payagala caused three accidents, one after the other, killing two cyclists and injuring a motor cyclist. According to the police, the driver, who suffered slight injuries, has been apprehended and placed under arrest.

According to the people of the area, the man in custody is not the driver but a willing scapegoat. They believe “the person who drove the vehicle had been a 22 year old youngster and is supposed to be the nephew of Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardane” (Gossiplanka). These two incidents reveal the degree to which the police has become politicised and the resultant erosion of public faith in the law-and-order machinery.

According to Presidential Sibling Minister Basil Rajapaksa, “Sri Lanka’s current economic growth rate of around 8.3% would rank the country among the top four performing economies in the world… (and) an IMF study had predicted that Sri Lanka would remain as the second best performing economy in the world next year, after China” (Ministry of Economic Development website).

It is possible that Minister Rajapaksa knows some secret which is not in the public domain; but according to the IMF’s official forecast, ‘Regional Economic Outlook – Asia and Pacific’, Sri Lanka’s projected growth rate for 2012 is 6.5%, which is less than that of three Asian nations, China, Laos and India; and on par with Kampuchea. There is no reference to Sri Lanka becoming the second best performing economy in Asia, let alone the world in this report. More pertinently, Sri Lanka is not included in the category of ‘Emerging Asia’ (China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam). On the contrary Sri Lanka is categorised among ‘Low Income Asian Countries’.

The IMF is no seer; it failed to predict the current global economic crisis. But if one is using the IMF as a source for fantastic claims, at least one must try to base oneself on really existing predictions rather than fictional ones.

The Sundance Festival 2012 opened with a documentary, ‘The Queen of Versailles’. Sundance’s Queen was not the Queen of France, that extravagant, blasé and myopic Marie Antoinette, but the wife of American real estate tycoon David Siegel. The Siegels were in the process of building the largest house in the US, modelled on the Versailles and filled with ‘Louis XIV type antique furniture’, when reality, in the form of financial disaster, intruded.

From the Familial tragedy of the Siegels to the national tragedy of Greece the warning is clear: Colossus cannot be built on the shifting sands of debt. It is a warning the insouciant Rajapaksas are ignoring with wilful blitheness.

For the Rajapaksas, development is mostly a show, from sky-scraping towers to mammoth Buddha statues, from international sports stadia to gargantuan theatres, from expressways to monorails. The focus is neither on sustainability nor on productivity but on exhibitionism; thus the preferred size is mega and the preferred style is ostentatious. The bigger and glitzier, the better seems to be the Rajapaksa mantra.

Jackie Siegel was “an ordinary person who has led a life that goes beyond the unlikey or the bizarre to the flat out impossible” wrote Andrew O’Hehir in his critique of ‘The Queen of Versailles’ (Salon – 20.1.2012). Throughout history, rulers have faced financial ruin and kingdoms have imploded because of mega building projects which exact impossible prices from nations, in the form of money, labour, time and energy.

Throughout history, feudal and bourgeois wastrels have sold family acreage and bankrupted family fortunes to sustain their extravagant lifestyles. The Rajapaksas – minor aristocrats from Medamulana – are no different. And they have both a lifestyle and a governing-style to sustain. No wonder the land-grabbing bill is back on track, this time with the consent of the UPFA-controlled provincial councils!

In this globalised world, no country is fully immune to the sort of economic-financial crisis which has infected the US and Europe. Both China and India have reduced their growth forecasts, taking into account the impact of the crisis on their own economies. Not so Sri Lanka.

This same IMF report warns that a “sharp fall in foreign remittances – including from the Middle East because of lower oil prices – would hurt domestic demand in….Sri Lanka”. The European and American crises can hurt the Lankan economy in many other ways, from a contraction in export markets to an increase in import prices.

According to President Rajapaksa the sanctions on Iran will hurt small countries like Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s dependence on Iranian oil is worsened by the fact that the Sapugaskanda refinery “is getting old and is best equipped to process the Iranian grade of oil or its near equivalent” (BBC – 31.1.2012). The planned upgrading of the refinery has been put on the backburner due to lack of funds.

Would it not make more sense to attend to such economically important tasks than building huge towers or monorails, which is likely to become as much of a waste as the luxury airport express train, another Namal Rajapaksa brainchild, which had to be discontinued after the briefest lifespan.


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